The Supernatural and the Divine

The Supernatural and the Divine


If one poses the question whether Buddhism affirms the existence of supernatural phenomena (see Note The Term ’Supernatural’) and celestial beings, the answer based on literal evidence in the Tipiṭaka and other scriptures is unequivocally yes. Scriptural confirmation for this reply is extensive and abundant.1 Having said this, it is difficult for people to reach an agreement or consensus on whether these things truly exist or not.

The Term ’Supernatural’

Trans.: note that I use the term ’supernatural’ here in the sense of ’exceeding the ordinary’, ’miraculous’, ’belonging to a higher realm’, or ’an event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature’. As the venerable author points out in chapter 4 of Buddhadhamma on Dependent Origination, the Buddhist teachings do not recognize a supernatural entity, as existing above nature and having power over it. In a similar vein, the term ’supernatural’ here does not imply a reality outside the natural world or a power going beyond natural forces. In this sense, the term ’supermundane’, although not a common word, may be more accurate in this context.

Many people feel that a belief in these things has harmful consequences, a viewpoint that has led some scholars to interpret these phenomena in a metaphorical way. It is not necessary here to examine these interpretations at length. Even if one accepts the literal interpretation that these things exist, the Buddhist teachings contain adequate safeguards to help prevent superstitious beliefs or an obsessive need to prove the validity of the supernatural.

Many people, from the ancient past to the present day, have believed in or feared ghosts, spirits, divine powers, the mystical, and the miraculous. Buddhism boldly asserts the existence of these things while declaring a freedom for humans in relation to them. The Buddhist teachings set forth principles that help people benefit from their relationship to supernatural phenomena. At the very least, upholding these principles causes less harm than trying to discover incontestable proof for the existence or non-existence of such things. It is important to know what these Buddhist principles are and how to apply them to daily life.

Buddhism is not interested in the debate whether supernatural phenomena and divine beings truly exist or not, and it discourages people from wasting time trying to prove the existence of these things. Buddhism is interested rather in people’s attitude and proper conduct in relation to the supernatural. In Buddhism, it is less important to know whether gods, spirits, ghosts, psychic powers, or miracles exist than to know (assuming that these things do exist) what sort of bearing they have on human life and to know the proper relationship to them. {942}

Some people may counter that one cannot know how to properly relate to these things until one has first proven their existence. But it is precisely the obsessive desire to prove the existence (or non-existence) of these things that has led to so much unskilful behaviour in relation to them. And to this day no definitive proof has been found either way.

Supernatural phenomena, including psychic powers and divine beings, are unprovable: it is impossible to offer indisputable evidence for their existence or non-existence. Believers in these things are unable to convince non-believers of their existence, while disbelievers are likewise unable to present clear-cut evidence to believers of their non-existence, whereby these latter people relinquish any lingering belief in their validity. Both parties abide on the level of faith or belief: they believe these things exist, or believe they do not exist, or they outright reject their existence. (Even if one has truly witnessed these things, one is unable to accurately share this realization with others.)

Apart from there being no undisputed proof that these things exist or do not exist, these things are elusive or evasive: occasionally an exciting trace of these things leads to a feeling of certainty in their existence, but as soon as one tries to capture the phenomenon, the feeling proves unsatisfactory. Even at times when a person feels convinced of these things’ existence, doubts arise; the more one searches for them, the more elusive they become; the more elusive they are, the more fascinating they become. An obsession with supernatural phenomena may thus lead people to almost drift away from this world.

Efforts to prove the existence of such unverifiable and mysterious phenomena are a waste of time and energy and create all kinds of problems, both individual and social. As long as effort is being expended on the futile search for definitive proof, believers and disbelievers argue with one another, refute each other’s theories, cause discord, and end up going their own ways. They are unable to modify their attitudes and behaviour because they are waiting for conclusive evidence, which never comes. No true consensus or unity is ever reached.

On a social or political level, a lack of consensus or agreement on these issues may lead to coercion or even persecution. Believers may then force non-believers into adopting a particular faith. Conversely, non-believers may prohibit believers from practising their beliefs, as is seen in some political ideologies that hold entirely to the scientific method. If government officials in such political systems think that people hold foolish or superstitious beliefs, they may force the people to abandon their beliefs and to adopt the state ideology (of repudiation of supernatural phenomena).

But this coercion does not solve the problem at its source; it does not ’clear’ people from doubt;2 force merely leads to a suppression of faith. {943} Such control can be maintained as long as the force or persuasion is strong, but as soon as these weaken, the suppressed faith sprouts, blossoms and spreads. And when this happens, the beliefs and practices may be as irrational, directionless, and harmful as before, without having been attended to and corrected.

From one perspective, the supernatural exists primarily as a set of beliefs in the minds of unawakened persons, and these beliefs are liable to fluctuation. Some people originally repudiate the supernatural and look upon believers with contempt, but after they have what they believe to be a mystical experience their perspective shifts completely and they become zealous believers. Without access to teachings clarifying a proper relationship to these things, they become more spellbound and preoccupied with them than those who believe from the beginning. Likewise, some people who have had a firm faith in these things later have an experience suggesting the object of their faith is unsatisfactory or uncertain, and as a consequence their faith is shaken or they become outright disbelievers.

This being the case, many people are caught up with the question whether these things exist or not, while at the same time they lack practical measures that help to prevent the harm in holding fixed beliefs and opinions. Buddhism emphasizes practical considerations: it teaches those things that every person can apply and benefit from, suitable to their individual level of maturity and ability. In reference to supernatural phenomena, Buddhism offers clear teachings: the emphasis is on one’s relationship to them and on knowing one’s reasons for adopting certain attitudes and behaviour in relation to them. In other words, it is not crucial to believe or disbelieve in these things; rather, a person should develop a proper relationship to them.

Both believers and non-believers can follow the Buddhist principles on this subject; if they do, their conduct in relation to questions of the supernatural will differ in only a negligible way. Furthermore, this conduct will benefit both parties (of believers and disbelievers), because each side will develop mutual care and consideration. Believers will uphold their faith in a way that does not cause harm to themselves or others, while non-believers will respect believers and may be able to advise them on how to relate to the objects of their faith constructively.

This principle of balanced practice – of establishing an appropriate attitude and relationship to things that cannot be proven and need not be directly realized for spiritual fulfilment – is a unique characteristic of Buddhism, distinguishing it from other religions and philosophies, including modern ideologies.3

When based on these proper principles, there is no harm in searching for proof of supernatural phenomena. If people have this special interest and do not cause trouble to others, then we can maintain an open mind to such a pursuit. It can be seen as similar to research in other fields of knowledge. {944}

Because matters concerning the supernatural are unprovable, people’s attitude and relationship to these things is crucial. And because these things exist primarily as a set of beliefs in people’s minds, the particular belief in either the existence or non-existence of these things is of minor importance.

In sum, the existence or non-existence of supernatural phenomena, including divine beings and psychics powers, have little bearing on the key teachings and tenets of Buddhism. Even though miracles and divine beings are claimed by the scriptures to exist, the practice and highest realization of Buddhism is possible without a person having any engagement with these things.

In relation to this subject the Buddha said:

The Buddha: What do you think, Sunakkhatta? Whether I perform miracles, which are qualities of supreme persons, or not, does the Dhamma that I have taught to reach the goal lead to the total destruction of suffering?

Sunakkhatta: Lord, whether the Lord performs miracles, which are qualities of supreme persons, or not, the Dhamma that the Blessed One has taught to reach the goal leads to the total destruction of suffering.

The Buddha: What do you think, Sunakkhatta? Whether I make known that which is considered the origin of the world or not, does the Dhamma that I have taught to reach the goal lead to the total destruction of suffering?

Sunakkhatta: Lord, whether the Lord makes known that which is considered the origin of the world or not, the Dhamma that the Blessed One has taught to reach the goal leads to the total destruction of suffering.4 {945}

D. III. 3-4.

Miracles and Psychic Powers


Although psychic powers are classified as expressions of ’higher knowledge’ (abhiññā),5 psychic powers of all kinds, including the ’divine ear’, clairvoyance, telepathy, and recollection of past lives, are mundane forms of higher knowledge. They are connected to mundane phenomena, belong to the domain of unawakened beings, and remain under the sway of mental defilement.6

People achieved these mundane forms of higher knowledge even before the time of the Buddha; they are not dependent on the arising of Buddhism. Psychic powers do not comprise the essence of Buddhism and they are not necessary for reaching its goal.

The essence of Buddhism, and that which accompanies the arising of Buddhism, is knowledge leading to the cessation of suffering and mental impurity. This knowledge, classified as the sixth (and final) form of higher knowledge, is called ’knowledge leading to the end of the taints’ (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa). It is a transcendent form of knowledge (lokuttara-abhiññā), exclusive to awakened beings. It leads unawakened people to deliverance and purity, to freedom from worldly constraints, and to complete realization as a ’noble being’ (ariya-puggala).

The mundane forms of higher knowledge can decline, whereas transcendent supreme knowledge is unshakeable. Achieving transcendent supreme knowledge is superior to achieving all five of the mundane forms of higher knowledge, but achieving the mundane forms in addition to transcendent supreme knowledge is considered outstanding and a sign of perfection. Transcendent supreme knowledge is essential for a truly virtuous life; mundane forms of higher knowledge are not essential, but rather enhance a person’s personal qualities.7

Three Kinds of Miracles

The Buddha classified psychic powers as one of the three kinds of miracles (pāṭihāriya):8

  1. Iddhi-pāṭihāriya: the miracle of performing psychic powers.

  2. Ādesanā-pāṭihāriya: the miracle of mind-reading.

  3. Anusāsanī-pāṭihāriya: the miracle of instruction: the teaching of truth, which leads to true insight and fulfilment.

Here is how these miracles are described in the Pali Canon:

  1. The miracle of performing psychic powers: There are some who perform various kinds of supernormal power: having been one, he becomes many; having been many, he becomes one; he appears and vanishes; he goes unhindered through a wall, through a rampart, through a mountain as if through space; he dives in and out of the earth as if it were water; he walks on water without sinking as if it were earth; he flies through the air like a bird; with his hand he touches and strokes the sun and the moon, so powerful and mighty; he exercises mastery with his body even as far as the Brahma world. {946}

  2. The miracle of mind-reading: Here, a monk reads the minds of other beings, of other people, reads their mental states, their thoughts and considerations, and declares: ’This is how your mind is, this is how it inclines, this is in your heart.’9

There are some who by means of a sign, declare: ’This is how your mind is, this is how it inclines, this is in your heart.’ And however many such declarations he makes, they are exactly so and not otherwise. Another does not make his declarations by means of a sign, but after hearing voices of humans, of spirits or devas declares: ’This is how your mind is, this is how it inclines, this is in your heart’ … or by hearing the sound of a person’s applied and sustained thoughts as he thinks, declares: ’This is how your mind is, this is how it inclines, this is in your heart’ … or by mentally penetrating the mind of someone in a thought-free state of concentration, knows clearly the mental volitional formation in that person’s mind, and knows that after this volitional formation he will have this train of thought. And however many such declarations he makes, they are exactly so and not otherwise.

D. III. 103-104; Ps. II. 227-8.

The marvel of mind-reading (ādesanā-pāṭihāriya) appears similar to telepathy (cetopariya-ñāṇa or paracitta-vijānana), but it differs in that the former is still at the level of intuitive perception; it has not yet reached the level of ’direct knowledge’ (ñāṇa).

  • 3. The miracle of instruction: Here, a monks gives instruction as follows: ’Reflect in this way, do not reflect in that way; pay attention in this way, do not pay attention in that way; you should abandon this, and dwell in the attainment of that.’

In the Kevaddha Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya this passage is followed by a description of the Buddha appearing in the world and teaching the Dhamma, which instils faith in people, leading them to go forth as renunciants, develop good conduct, sense restraint, mindfulness and clear comprehension, seek solitude, develop the jhānas, and attain the six forms of higher knowledge, ending with knowledge of the destruction of the taints and the realization of arahantship. All of these results of teaching are examples of the ’miracle of instruction’.

Here are the literal meanings of the Pali words mentioned above:

  • Pāṭihāriya (’miracle’): to ’beat back’, ’drive away’, or ’destroy’ something that is unfavourable or hostile.

  • Iddhi (’psychic power’): ’achievement’, ’accomplishment’.

  • Ādesanā (’mind-reading’): to ’indicate’, ’reveal’, ’point out’, ’make clear’.

  • Anusāsanī: ’repeated instruction’.

Applying these definitions, the Paṭisambhidāmagga explains the three kinds of miracles in a new way. It states that all virtuous qualities, like renunciation, lovingkindness, jhāna, insight into selflessness, and the path of arahantship are iddhi-pāṭihāriya in the sense that they lead to specific achievements and eliminate negative qualities like sensual desire, ill-will, and other mental defilements. All virtuous qualities are ādesanā-pāṭihāriya in the sense that they only arise in the presence of a clear heart and unclouded mind. And virtuous qualities are anusāsanī-pāṭihāriya because the teachings have emphasized their proper application, cultivation, development, and balance.10 Although these are not common explanations for these miracles, they offer a thought-provoking perspective.

Psychic Powers Are Not Essential

The householder Kevaddha once went to the Buddha and asked him to perform a miracle:

Lord, this city of Nāḷandā is rich, prosperous, populous, and full of people who have faith in the Blessed One. It would be well if the Lord were to request some monk to perform a superhuman miracle. In this way the citizens of Nāḷandā would come to have even more faith – would come to have boundless faith – in the Blessed One.

The Buddha replied: Kevaddha, this is not the way I teach the Dhamma to the monks, by saying: ’Go, monks, and perform superhuman feats for the white-clothed laypeople.’ {947}

The Buddha goes on to say that of the three kinds of miracles, he disfavours psychic powers and mind-reading, because he sees their potential harm: when hearing about these things, those who believe in their validity become further convinced, while those who are skeptical deny their validity. They may claim that a monk who performs these feats has resorted to using a magical charm (gandhārī), a mind-reading charm (maṇīkā), or some other trick. This disparity of opinion is followed by arguments and disagreements.

The Buddha then explains the meaning and value of the miracle of instruction, saying that it can be applied and its benefits realized by everyone, until one reaches knowledge of the destruction of the taints, which is the goal of Buddhism.

He gave an example of a monk who was highly skilled in psychic powers and who wanted to know where the four great elements cease without remainder.11 This monk travelled to the celestial realms in search of an answer to this question, pressing on until he arrived at the Brahma realms. But finally, unable to get an answer, he returned to the human realm in order to ask the Buddha to explain the true nature of the world. This story shows how psychic powers are limited, often ineffective, and not the essence of the Buddhist teachings.12

On another occasion the brahmin Saṅgārava mentioned to the Buddha a conversation occurring among the king’s courtiers in the palace on the following subject:

Formerly there were fewer monks, but there were more who displayed miracles of supernormal power transcending the human level. But now there are more monks, but fewer who display miracles of supernormal power transcending the human level.

The Buddha replied by explaining the three kinds of miracles. He then asked Saṅgārava which one of these three appeals to him as the most excellent and sublime. Saṅgārava answered that a knowledge and realization of the miracles of psychic powers and mind-reading is restricted to those who perform them; this knowledge cannot be transferred to others. From the outside, they appear as having the nature of a magician’s trick. Therefore, the miracle of instruction is superior and more sublime. The recipients of this instruction can reflect on, apply, and realize these teachings, leading to the end of suffering.13

Noble Psychic Powers

Another passage in the Pali Canon describes two kinds of psychic powers:14

  1. Psychic powers that are not ’noble’: psychic powers accompanied by mental defilement and acting as a ’basis for suffering’ (upadhi), i.e. psychic powers as normally understood and as discussed earlier. Here, through determined effort, a renunciant attains liberation of the mind (cetovimutti) and performs various supernormal feats, like projecting mind-made images, walking through walls, flying through the air, diving into the earth, or walking on water.

  2. ’Noble’ psychic powers: psychic powers free from mental defilement and not acting as a basis for suffering. In this case a monk exercises self-mastery over his perceptions and is able to control his responses to sense impressions. He can view a repulsive object as not repulsive; for instance, he can look at a person whose face is disfigured and relate to this person with kindness and friendship. And he can view an attractive object as unattractive; for instance, he can see a charming, enticing body as repugnant. Or he can remain equanimous, relinquishing both the attractive and the repugnant, for example while reflecting on things in an unbiased way and seeing into their true nature. {948}

This passage confirms that psychic powers as normally understood – the ability to perform amazing and fantastic feats – are neither praised in Buddhism nor are they the essence of Buddhism. In Buddhism, the highest form of psychic power is the ability to control one’s responses to sense impressions and to develop mental self-mastery. This form of power causes no harm to oneself or others.

Those who exercise the former kind of psychic powers may not be able to exercise the latter, and they occasionally apply their psychic abilities to indulge their defilements. The latter kind of psychic powers, however, fosters wholesome qualities, eradicates defilement, and keeps the mind from being seduced by greed, hatred and delusion.15

The fact that the Buddha established a training rule forbidding monks from revealing psychic powers to laypeople also confirms that he did not encourage their use.16

As stated above, psychic powers are a form of mundane attainment, which enhance the attributes of those who have attained transcendent knowledge, helping them to better perform their activities and assist other human beings. The Buddha referred to someone who is endowed with the three kinds of miraculous gifts as a ’fully accomplished one’, ’one who has reached the goal’, ’one who is supreme among gods and humans’.17 {949}

As stated earlier, however, the miracle of instruction is the principal and constant factor, while the remaining two miracles are supplementary. When there is a good reason to perform the miracles of psychic powers and mind-reading, they should be applied merely in the early stages, preparing the way for the miracle of instruction. Instruction is the goal and consummation, as will be discussed at more length below.

Dangers of Psychic Powers

Psychic powers can be harmful both for people who possess them and for those associating with these people. Unenlightened people who possess these powers may be intoxicated by them:18 they may become conceited, feeling superior and denigrating others; they may become obsessed with the material gains and honours accruing from such powers; they may become dishonest; or they may use these powers for evil purposes, as in the case of Ven. Devadatta.

At least, the attachment to or delight in psychic powers prevents a person from realizing higher spiritual qualities and from cleansing the mind from impurities. And because the psychic abilities of unawakened persons are subject to decline, the anxiety around protecting these powers is an obstacle, which interferes with wise reflection and the effective application of insight. Psychic powers are thus classified as obstacles to insight meditation (iddhi-palibodha), which should be removed or eliminated by one who is developing wisdom.19

There is a high likelihood that people associating with a person who has psychic powers may also be harmed. The primary danger is that these people will become victims. Someone possessing (or pretending to possess) psychic powers may boast of these powers in order to seek personal gain.

Note that those people who practise correctly and who have aptitude in this area only exercise psychic powers in those circumstances when they deem them appropriate as a channel leading to proper instruction. For if not to offer Dhamma teachings, why would someone display such powers other than to seek personal fame or material gain?

It is thus important to remember that psychic powers should always be accompanied by proper instruction. If someone reveals or claims to have psychic powers without these powers being a bridge leading to the ’miracle of instruction’, their behaviour can be considered incorrect.20 {950}

They may have bad or deceitful intentions, they may be seeking personal gain, or they may simply have a deluded understanding of psychic powers. This same principle can be applied in the case of sacred objects or amulets: someone who uses such objects when relating to people, without providing any form of teaching – without leading them to the development of wisdom, to an understanding of the truth, and to a gradual freedom from these objects – is practising incorrectly and leading people in a wrong direction. (See Note Leading in the Wrong Direction)

Leading in the Wrong Direction

This subject includes sacred and magical objects, occult powers, and those things the Buddha referred to as the base or ’beastly’ arts (tiracchāna-vijjā). The base arts are forms of knowledge that bar the way to heaven and to Nibbāna, or external teachings that do not accord with the goal of Buddhism. They mostly involve divination, prophesying, and the treatment of disease, which for a bhikkhu are considered faulty and harmful from a moral point of view if he practises these arts to make a living or to seek personal gain.

Tiracchāna-vijjā are distinct from iddhi-pāṭihāriya. Tiracchāna-vijjā are discussed at D. I. 9-12 and mentioned repeatedly in the Sīlakkhandhavagga of the Dīgha Nikāya. There are precepts forbidding the learning and teaching of these arts at, e.g.: Vin. II. 140; Vin. IV. 306; explained at, e.g.: DA. I. 131; Nd1A. II. 402.

Even if a person does not fall victim to someone who claims to possess psychic powers, a fascination or preoccupation with these things runs counter to two important Buddhist principles:

First, Buddhism teaches the path to liberation. Because psychic powers are not of essential importance to Buddhism – they are not directly related to the goal of Buddhism and do not help people to be free from mental defilement – a fascination with these things tends to be a waste of time and energy, which could be used to practise the Dhamma.

Second, those people who associate with someone claiming psychic or sacred powers generally wish for help from supernatural or divine forces, say for good luck or wealth. This behaviour is inconsistent with a central tenet of Buddhism, which is a teaching of action (kamma-vāda), a teaching of activity (kiriya-vāda), and a teaching of effort (viriya-vāda): Buddhism teaches people to seek results through determined, deliberate action in line with cause and effect.

The wish for results through supplication to divine or supernatural forces can lead to inactivity or laziness. It leads to a lack of effort, a lack of urgency to undertake necessary tasks or to avoid harm, and it contradicts the principle of heedfulness.

If one takes an interest in psychic powers it is better that one develops these powers oneself (although this still may be a waste of time), because the wish for results from others’ powers or from divine forces is a reliance on external things and makes a person more dependent on them. Instead of leading to more independence, this reliance on external things makes a person less grounded and more confused; a person’s resourcefulness, inner strength, and self-confidence is diminished. The reliance on external things contradicts another basic principle of Buddhism, which teaches self-reliance – being a refuge unto oneself. Buddhism teaches the path to liberation, which at the end transcends faith and leads to pure wisdom. The Path begins with dependence on the wisdom of the Teacher,21 who is a ’spiritual friend’ (kalyāṇamitta). Eventually, one can abandon even this form of dependence and stand on one’s own two feet, without the support from a teacher.22 {951}

Proper Relationship to Psychic Powers

Regarding how the display of psychic powers affects people in general, let us look at the conduct of the Buddha and his disciples, who were exceptionally skilled in psychic powers. As mentioned earlier, the Buddha clearly disfavoured the miracles of performing psychic powers and mind-reading, but consistently supported and applied the miracle of instruction; instruction lies at the heart of the Buddha’s activities. There were instances, however, when the Buddha performed psychic powers.

By looking at these occasions, we can conclude that the Buddha only exercised psychic powers when he was subduing (or ’taming’) those who possessed these powers – those who gave great import to these powers or who with arrogance felt superior to others – so that they would abandon their infatuation with them. He performed psychic powers to subdue psychic powers, to encourage a person who was fascinated in or conceited about them to realize their limitation, and to see things that are superior to them – to study and recognize things which the Buddha revealed through the miracle of instruction. This is similar to the aforementioned principle of applying psychic powers in conjunction with instruction, but here the application is limited to those who are intoxicated by psychic powers and who express a stubborn pride when encountering the Buddha, for example in the story of subduing the god Brahma.

There are some stories of the Buddha’s chief disciples combining the display of psychic powers with instruction, to people who were fascinated with these powers, for example the story of Ven. Sāriputta instructing Ven. Devadatta’s disciples with the miracle of mind-reading, and similar stories of Ven. Mahā Moggallāna exercising psychic powers.

There are a few stories of monks revealing psychic powers to help people, but there is not a single instance in the Pali Canon of monks exercising these powers as a consequence of people’s request for them.23 There were instances when people made this request because they wanted to witness these powers, but the Buddha established a training rule forbidding monks from displaying such powers to laypeople, as mentioned earlier.

In everyday life, people must live with other human beings and live under ordinary circumstances. Rather than relying on invisible, external forces, which have no direct connection to people, Buddhism emphasizes how it is better to train and discipline oneself, to develop knowledge and skill so that one can solve problems using ordinary, rational methods and reach success through righteous means. The Buddha defined the ability leading to success as a ’power’ (iddhi), which accords with the Buddhist teachings. This ability is twofold: material power (āmisa-iddhi) and spiritual power (dhamma-iddhi), the latter being the leading principle.24 {952}

There are two primary points revealing the limitations of psychic powers, along with all forms of sacred or supernormal forces, revealing that these powers are not of essential importance to Buddhism, are not related to the goal of Buddha-Dhamma, are unnecessary for walking the Buddhist path, and offer no true security or safety:

  1. From the perspective of wisdom, supernatural powers cannot directly give rise to wisdom, to the penetration of truth, and to an understanding of phenomena as they really are. An example of this limitation is the story of the monk who possessed psychic powers and went in search of an answer throughout all realms of existence until he arrived at the realm of Brahma, who claims to have created the world, yet this monk’s quest was in vain. A similar story describes the rishi who unsuccessfully travelled in search of the end of the universe until he died.25

  2. From the perspective of the mind, psychic powers are unable to truly eliminate mental defilements or to end suffering. When the mind is confused, depressed, agitated, or overwhelmed by greed, hatred and delusion, these powers are unable to lead to freedom; even if one suppresses these negative states of mind through the power of jhāna, this solution is only temporary. Whenever one exits the state of concentration and faces ordinary life, the defilements return to disturb and harass, and to cause suffering. Even worse, psychic powers may be used to serve the defilements, as happened in the case of Ven. Devadatta.26

Divine Beings

Human Beings and Divine Beings

Most of the material in the preceding section on miracles and psychic powers also applies to the subject of divine beings (devatā). (See Note Divine Beings (Devatā)) People generally take an interest in divine beings for practical reasons: they wish and pray for help from divine beings, who possess special powers, in the same way as they seek help from other forms of supernatural powers. The aforementioned principles, especially on the advantages and potential harm of supernatural powers, are therefore relevant to the subject of divine beings. There are, however, some additional matters for consideration.

Divine Beings (Devatā)

The words deva or devatā encompass all divine beings, including Brahma gods. Divine beings are categorized into three groups:

  1. devas of the sensual sphere; those beings attached to sensuality; the abodes of these beings are sometimes referred to as the ’six heavens connected to sensuality’ (chakāmāvacara-sagga): the realm of the Four Great Kings (cātummahārājikā), the realm of the Thirty-Three gods (tāvatiṁsā); the realm of the Yāma gods (yāmā); the realm of the contented gods (tusitā); the realm of the gods who rejoice in their own creations (nimmānaratī); the realm of gods who lord over the creation of others (paranimmitavasavattī);

  2. divine beings of the fine material plane (rūpa Brahmas), of which there are sixteen levels; and

  3. divine beings of the formless plane (arūpa Brahmas).

Comp.: Vīthimuttaparicchedo, Paṭisandhicatukkaṁ.

Generally speaking, all forms of divine beings up to the highest levels of Brahma gods are companions in birth, old age, suffering and death, companions in the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). Moreover, as is the case with human beings, the majority of these divine beings are unawakened beings (puthujjana), possessing mental defilements. Although some divine beings are enlightened, most of them realized enlightenment in a previous life as a human being. Although divine beings are ranked as superior to human beings in spiritual qualities, the celestial realms and the human realm are so similar that they are both classified as a ’happy destination’ (sugati). {953}

In some respects divine beings have an advantage over human beings, while in other respects human beings have the advantage. On one occasion the Buddha compared the residents of India (Jambudīpa – ’Land of the Rose-apple Trees’) with the gods of Tāvatiṁsā heaven, and claimed that the gods are superior to humans in three aspects: divine age, divine beauty, and divine happiness, while humans are superior to the gods in three aspects: courage, mindfulness, and the practice of the holy life (i.e. the practice of the noble path – ariya-magga).27

Normally, humans consider themselves inferior to divine beings and want to be reborn in heaven, but divine beings consider rebirth as a human being to be a ’happy destination’, as confirmed by the Buddha: The human state, monks, is the devas’ reckoning of a good destination.28 When a divine being is about to pass away, the other devas invoke a blessing so that this being may take birth as a human, since the human realm is a place where one can choose to perform wholesome, virtuous deeds and give oneself fully to Dhamma practice (of course, one can also give oneself fully to unwholesome actions).29

The Buddha considered birth as one of the gods, who live an exceptionally long time, as a wasted opportunity for practising the holy life.30 One can even call such a birth bad luck. Divine beings experience undiluted happiness, which tends to lead to heedlessness and to weakly established mindfulness. The human realm contains a mixture of happiness and suffering, and it offers a wide range of experiences and lessons. If a human being knows how to properly direct attention he or she will gain understanding, develop mindfulness that is agile and alert, develop self-discipline, and progress in the ’noble qualities’ (ariya-dhamma).31

The human realm lies between the heavenly realms and the ’unhappy destinations’ (apāya), for instance the hell realms. The unhappy destinations are inhabited by beings who are evil or of base spiritual qualities. Although some of these beings can be considered good, they have fallen into these realms because unskilful deeds have borne fruit and dragged them down. The celestial realms are inhabited by beings who are comparatively virtuous. Although some of these beings are of bad character, they were born in heaven because wholesome deeds lifted the person up.

The human realm which lies in the middle is like a road junction – a place for both divine beings and beings from states of perdition to pass through. It is a place where beings from all realms of existence come to produce kamma. It is where evil beings better themselves and prepare for heaven, where virtuous beings commit evil deeds and prepare for hell, and where wise beings stop producing kamma, disentangle themselves, propagate the Dhamma, and find freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

There are four levels of unhappy destinations. Beings in each distinctive level possess a similar degree of unwholesome qualities (pāpa-dhamma).32 The celestial realms contain many different levels with ascending degrees of refinement; beings in each level possess a similar degree of virtue. Only the human realm is a centre for both vice and virtue of all hues: it contains evil people who resemble the beings from the deepest recesses of hell; it contains virtuous, refined people, similar to the highest Brahma gods; and it contains beings who have transcended all states of existence and whom even the gods venerate. {954}

The spiritual qualities and general capabilities of humans and divine beings are very similar, but human beings possess a greater opportunity for spiritual development and self-improvement. Generally speaking, devas are superior and more proficient than humans, but when humans elevate themselves by spiritual cultivation, they are equivalent to or even surpass the gods in virtue and ability (although from the perspective of Dhamma, it is not encouraged to view this as a competition).33

Obsolete Form of Relating to the Divine

Religions existing in India before the time of the Buddha were polytheistic, but their adherents also believed in a chief God, who created the world and all phenomena. It was not considered possible for human beings to be superior to this God. People related to the gods through prayer and entreaty, seeking ways to please and favour them, for example through hymns of praise, worship, propitiatory offerings, and sacrifice. Alternatively, people used other forms of supplication, by pressuring the gods into taking an interest, provoking them until they were worried and forced into lending a helping hand or appeasing the supplicants. This latter method employed various religious and ascetic practices of self-mortification and self-punishment. In sum, there are two traditional ways of relating to divine beings:

  1. Through prayer and supplication; through offerings, worship, and sacrifice, similar to the pleadings of a child with its parents. Sometimes this behaviour turns into an effort to flatter or bribe the higher powers.

  2. Through coercion, compelling the devas through various ascetic practices or religious rituals to act according to one’s wishes. This resembles a child who, punching and biting, tries to force his parents to pay attention and satisfy his desires.

Both ways boil down to a search for personal gain and involve dependence on an external force. When the Buddha began teaching, he encouraged abandoning these two ways of practice, and it is this abandonment of them that distinguishes Buddhism on this subject of divine beings. By abandoning these practices, Buddhism is able to offer a more rational approach, to point clearly to the advantages and harm of different ways of acting, and to establish a new, more appropriate relationship to the divine. {955}

Harmful Effects of Depending on Divine Beings

Reliance on divine beings has similar limitations and creates similar obstacles to those described above in relation to psychic powers. From the perspective of wisdom, devas, like human beings, are on the whole still ignorant of the truth. This is evident from the story of the monk (mentioned earlier) who travelled through the various heaven realms asking a question, which even the highest Brahma could not answer, and the story of the Buddha subduing the Brahma named Baka.

From the perspective of the mind, devas are similar to human beings in that most of them are unawakened – they still have a degree of mental defilement and suffering; they are still spinning in the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). Examples for this are the god Brahma, who despite his elevated spiritual qualities still heedlessly considers himself immortal,34 and Indra (King of the Tāvatiṁsā heaven), who is intoxicated with divine treasures.35 People seek help from Indra, but Indra himself is not without greed, hatred, delusion, and fear.36 Apart from the dependence on divine beings conflicting with the principles of achievement through perseverance and effort, of self-reliance, and of liberation, as mentioned earlier in the section on psychic powers, there are many other harmful consequences to such behaviour:

  • It is not only human beings who are harmed when they give propitiatory offerings to and curry favour with devas. Because most devas are unenlightened, they too suffer harm when they become enamoured with praise and attached to offerings, and increasingly want more of these things. In this way, both humans and devas become preoccupied with worship and the effects of worship, abandoning or neglecting their personal responsibilities, and falling into carelessness and decline.

  • Some devas, when they become infatuated with offerings and praise, look for ways to increase a sense of obligation and dependence in people. For this end, they may lure people by satisfying some of their wishes so that the people have increased expectations and make more offerings, or they may even deliberately cause a crisis so that people will feel the need to turn to them.

  • When acquisitive devas become obsessed with personal gain, virtuous devas who help people without seeking personal advantage become weary and stay away (customarily, devas do not wish to trouble themselves or intervene in the affairs of human beings).37 Good people are then deprived of help and encouragement. As devas keen on personal gain only help when they receive an entreaty or a sacrificial gift, more people are then convinced that good deeds do not lead to good results, but that it is evil deeds that lead to good results. This causes social confusion.

  • When virtuous devas stay away this gives even greater opportunity for acquisitive devas to seek personal advantage. For example, when people make entreaties to a specific deity whom they worship, covetous devas will come and deceive people by pretending to be that specific deity. People will not know better because this matter is beyond their reach of comprehension. The deceitful, impersonating devas will then cause the people to be more fascinated and beguiled by the supernatural. {956}

Proper Relationship to the Divine

From these remarks we see that those people who receive assistance from divine beings do not need to be good, and that good people do not necessarily receive assistance from such beings. This is because, for the most part, both humans and devas are unawakened and may practise incorrectly; they then cause well-ordered systems in the world to be disturbed and weakened.

Following are a few more observations on the subject of a proper relationship to divine beings. First, devas are unable to unilaterally and decisively control human circumstances or to determine the destiny of human beings. Although it is generally understood that devas have superior powers to humans, when humans develop themselves they are able to equal or surpass the devas, as mentioned earlier. The deciding factor for who is superior lies with an individual’s spiritual qualities and effort, which is confirmed by this story in the Jātaka Tales:

Two kings from neighbouring kingdoms were preparing for battle. One of the kings consulted with a rishi, who had psychic powers. This rishi was able to converse with Indra, who informed him that the king’s army would be victorious. The king therefore heedlessly let his soldiers rest and entertain themselves. The other king, having heard the prediction of his own defeat, redoubled efforts to strengthen his army. In the ensuing battle, the army of this second king gained victory. Indra, who was blamed, then uttered this divine maxim: ’The perseverance and effort of human beings, the devas are unable to thwart.’

J. III. 7; JA. III. 3-8.

People often give honour and respect to the divine spirits that dwell in their houses, but from one perspective these spirits are simply guests. If the owner of the house is very virtuous, for example he or she is a ’noble disciple’ – secure in spiritual qualities and has progressed from a reliance on faith to steadfast wisdom – the house devas do not have control over the owner but rather must obey and respect him or her.

This is illustrated in the story of the deva who lived in the archway of Anāthapiṇḍika’s house (Anāthapiṇḍika did not construct a special dwelling for this deva). When Anāthapiṇḍika lost his wealth, the deva came to him and suggested that he stop giving alms. Anāthapiṇḍika considered this advice unrighteous and drove the deva away. The deva was unable to find a new residence and thus went to Indra for help. Indra instructed the deva on how to properly ask forgiveness from Anāthapiṇḍika; on following this instruction the deva was given permission to return to his original dwelling.38

The accusations made by devas towards a person should not be taken as ultimate criteria for the person’s faults or wrongs, because there are many examples of devas disparaging good people. The deva mentioned in the story of Anāthapiṇḍika above was referred to as having wrong view or as ’blind and foolish’. This deva was unhappy that, when the Buddha or his disciples visited the house, he would have to descend to the ground, and so when Anāthapiṇḍika became poor, the deva urged him to stop associating with the Buddha, but his plan came to nothing.

Some devas out of mischief instil a sense of mutual suspicion in people.39 Some forest devas are unhappy when monks go and live in the forest to practise the Dhamma, because these virtuous people with superior spiritual qualities have entered their domain, which makes them feel frustrated and inconvenienced; they therefore look for ways to make life uncomfortable for them.40 Under these circumstances, the Buddha recommended that the monks solve this problem by responding with goodness and spreading lovingkindness. {957}

In the case that devas made proposals and suggested a person act in a particular way, if these requests were deemed inappropriate or unrighteous, the Buddha’s disciples who had a true understanding of his teachings remained resolute and under no circumstances allowed themselves to be persuaded by these suggestions, regardless of whether the devas threatened them or promised rewards.41

Third, some devas behave badly; they are hostile and repeatedly impede the spiritual development of human beings. One should not only refrain from soliciting or relying on these devas, but one should outright subdue or conquer them with virtue. If people develop themselves well they are able to overcome these devas.

An important example of this kind of deity is Māra.42 Māra dwells in Paranimmitavasavattī – the sixth and highest heaven of the sense sphere. He likes to obstruct and harass others when they perform good deeds, especially when someone tries to free himself from sensuality (kāma); in such a case Māra fears that the person will transcend his domain, and in this case the person must confront Māra to pass beyond.43

Māra has enormous power; even Indra flees and hides away at the outskirts of the universe when Māra appears, and Brahma also avoids him.44 Occasionally, Māra goes to disturb the Brahma worlds, which are fine-material spheres and higher than Māra’s normal realm of existence.45 The Buddha therefore said: Of all powerful beings, Māra is the greatest.46 Although Māra has such great power, a person who is well-trained in moral conduct, concentration and wisdom can conquer him with his virtue, and such a person of supreme spiritual qualities is revered by the devas all the way to the Brahma realms.47

These words are not meant to encourage a feeling of contempt or insensitivity in regard to divine beings, but rather to increase understanding and help establish a proper relationship to them.

Buddhist Relationship to the Divine

Based on an understanding of the nature of divine beings and the harm in relating to them improperly, Buddhism teaches to abandon all dependence on and supplication to them, whether in the form of prayer or through coercion. Buddhism teaches a new form of relationship, one of friendship, lovingkindness, and mutual respect. We should consider that we are all companions in suffering and in the round of rebirth, and that on the whole humans and devas exist at a high spiritual level. Humans and devas should not disturb or interfere with each other, each making effort to fulfil their individual responsibilities.

This relationship of non-disturbance and non-harm between humans and devas is clearly depicted in the many stories from the scriptures, especially in the Jātaka and Dhammapada commentaries. {958} In these stories we see devas assisting human beings, but the nature of and reasons behind this assistance differs from that found in earlier traditions. Here, the devas help from their own initiative, prompted by their own sense of goodness; they do not help because people ask and they neither expect nor desire such entreaty. Those people who receive help act virtuously and judiciously in an ordinary, independent fashion; they do not expect to be helped and they do not seek such assistance. The cause for this assistance is the goodness or good actions of human beings; it is not a result of supplication or a form of reward.

In the scriptures, the chief deity who offers such assistance to human beings is Sakka, also known as Indra,48 king of the devas. The principle of assistance by Sakka, which conforms to the Buddhist principle of ’active engagement’ (kamma), evolved from the principle of divine power espoused by pre-Buddhist religious doctrines.49 Although this principle is not yet purely in accord with the Buddhist teachings, it has evolved in a distinctly Buddhist direction and has been incorporated into the Buddhist tradition. The core of this principle is that virtuous human beings act based on their own mindfulness and wise judgement in as steady and determined a way as they are able; they do not wait for, expect, or request assistance from divine beings. Virtuous devas are eager to assist good people based on their own sense of virtue. When good people are in trouble, virtuous devas feel compelled to help. (See Note Prayer Without Effort)

Prayer Without Effort

In today’s world it appears that people rely heavily on supplication and prayer. This would be acceptable if they first made effort, but it is often the case that people make no effort before soliciting divine beings. The devas in turn wait for a petition before descending and they help those who offer the supplication, regardless of whether the people are good or bad. Under such circumstances, one can assume that the devas who come are acquisitive, disingenuous, or meek, getting tied up with human affairs until both parties are corrupted.

Here, human beings behave well without expecting assistance from divine beings, and devas offer assistance without expecting human entreaty. Those people who are still concerned with the principle of divine power can reflect on this saying: ’The responsibility of human beings is the effort to do good; the responsibility of heaven is to assist good people; fulfil your responsibility to the best of your ability.’50

If people do not make effort to develop goodness, but are caught up in supplicating the devas, and if the devas are not interested in helping good people, but rather help only those who make entreaties, both parties act irresponsibly. When humans and devas lack virtue and act irresponsibly, they both face ruin according to a law of nature that governs both the human realm and heaven. {959}

Here is a concluding passage by the Buddha on this subject of the divine:

Abstention from fish and meat, life as a naked ascetic, shaving of the head, life as a matted-hair ascetic, smearing [the body] with ashes, wearing rough leopard skins, fire worship, undertaking religious practices in order to become a god, ascetic practices of this world, propitiatory offerings, sacrifices, seasonal sacred observances: none of these things purify a person who has not overcome doubt.51

Sn. 44-5.


Three Stages of Development

The community of Buddhist disciples is comprised of many individuals who begin their spiritual journey from different starting points and are walking on different stages of the same path, leading to the same destination. These individuals are at different levels of development in the ’noble teaching’ (ariya-dhamma). By acknowledging this diversity among people, one is able to provide individuals with suitable assistance for their specific circumstances.

In relation to the subject of divine beings, this journey or development consists of three stages:

  1. a dependence on and solicitation to divine beings;

  2. a friendly coexistence with divine beings; and

  3. a receiving of honour and veneration from divine beings.

Level one can be considered a pre-developmental stage; level two signals the beginning stage of joining a Buddhist or ’noble’ community; and level three is the stage of development of a person who has reached the goal of Buddhism.

To be called a Buddhist, one must pass beyond the stage of reliance on devas to the stage of friendly coexistence. One will then conduct one’s life by making effort based on reasoned judgement. One ceases relating to devas as powerful beings who need to be petitioned and flattered, and instead one considers devas as virtuous companions with whom one should maintain mutual kindness and respect. (See Note Respect for Devas) In this respect, humans and devas should not overly associate with one another, interfere in each other’s affairs, or conspire together to cause harm to anyone.

Respect for Devas

Thai Buddhists in the past who believed in devas would inform the devas or the guardian spirits before acting in a way that might trouble them. This behaviour can be taken as evidence for an adaptation from the propitiation of devas by the brahmins to a Buddhist way of practice.

It seems, however, that the propitiation of devas is proliferating in Thailand, despite the warning by Buddhist leaders to abandon this behaviour. This probably results from not knowing the proper relationship to devas as taught in Buddhism. Consequently, the two factions of those who believe in devas and those who deny the existence of devas engage in disputes. Despite these disputes, there are always those who maintain their belief in devas, and those who speculate about the belief in devas. These believers often do not know any way to behave towards the divine other than through supplication.

In regard to psychic powers (including sacred or occult powers), spiritual development also consists of three stages: (1) dependence; (2) development of psychic power; and (3) complete freedom.

The first stage consists of a fascination in and reliance on external, supernatural powers. A person at this stage wastes time and effort and lacks reasoned judgement. This stage can be considered ’pre-developmental’ or ’ignoble’.

The second stage consists of developing the ability to master psychic powers. These powers are used to support wholesome actions, for example by helping people who are in danger, and to assist in the ’miracle of instruction’. {960} At this second stage auspicious or sacred objects are used to provide encouragement and reassurance.52 They act as reminders, strengthening people’s resolve to perform good actions and increasing self-confidence. Although one can say that this stage is the beginning of a Buddhist way of life, the Buddha did not promote the development of psychic powers because it can easily drag one back to the first stage.

In the third stage, a person is free. Here, one does not rely on supernatural forces or other external factors to provide encouragement, because one’s mind is steadfast. One has control over one’s mind and lives free from anxiety. At the very least one’s confidence in the Triple Gem is complete and this provides one with security. A person who has reached this stage truly understands the principles of Buddhism. People should hasten to progress to the third stage, recollecting the teaching in the suttas describing the attributes of an excellent lay follower:

He is not superstitious and believes in kamma;
He seeks results from kamma,
Not from auspicious powers.

A. III. 206.

Stage of Freedom

The most important task in helping people to develop through these stages is to offer teachings, and traditionally the principal spiritual teachers in Buddhist communities have been the bhikkhus. The speed and extent of spiritual development depends on both the teacher and the student. Teachers have different levels of skill in teaching; likewise, students’ capabilities and spiritual faculties vary.

The aim of teaching is for people to reach the third stage, of freedom. If the teacher is skilled at teaching and the student is ready, it may only require one meeting between the two to lead the student from the first stage of dependency to the third stage of freedom. The greater the skill of the teacher, the faster the student’s development.

Usually, to lead students out of established ways of thinking and to help them progress, a teacher must connect to them at their present level of development, or he must provide them with something familiar in order to establish trust. When the teacher lacks special powers for establishing confidence, then he must personally guide the students from their present level of spiritual development to higher levels.

In the context where the monks are the primary teachers, it is natural that they have different abilities in regard to teaching. It is most probably for this reason that concessions were made to the monastic discipline, in which it became acceptable to incorporate aspects of the second stage, of skilful engagement with supernatural phenomena. The principle behind such concessions is to use those things that people attach to, as a starting point when providing instruction. The first step in this process is to dislodge these things from their original place of importance and to steer the person in a more suitable direction. At the same time, these things can be used constructively, as a way to spark interest in people, while leading them to eventually pass beyond them. {961}

This way of practice is evident in the training rule laid down by the Buddha concerning stepping on ceremonial cloth. At one time, Prince Bodhi (Prince Bodhirājakumāra) had just finished building a palace and he invited the Buddha along with the community of monks to have a meal there. The prince ordered that white cloth be spread on the first step of the stairway leading into the palace. When the Buddha arrived he refrained from stepping on the cloth and consequently the prince had the cloth removed, after which the Buddha entered. Later, the Buddha laid down a rule forbidding monks from stepping on such cloth.

On another occasion a woman who had just had a miscarriage invited the monks to her house and having laid down a cloth she asked the monks to step on it as a blessing. The monks, however, refused to do so. The woman was upset and publicly criticized the monks. When this story reached the Buddha he amended the training rule, allowing monks to step on ceremonial cloth as a blessing when requested to do so by laypeople. (See Note Ceremonial Cloth)

Ceremonial Cloth

Vin. II. 127-9; M. II. 91. The commentaries (VinA. VI. 1209; [MA. 3/299]; DhA. III. 133) explain that Prince Bodhi had no children and had the cloth laid down with the determination that if the Buddha stepped on the cloth this would augur the birth of a child. The Buddha knew that the prince would not have children and therefore did not step on the cloth. He laid down the training rule to help future generations of monks. In the time of the Buddha there were many monks who could read people’s minds and they could respond according to the thoughts of the lay donors, while later monks would not have this gift and would not know how to respond appropriately. The laypeople would therefore accuse them of not being adept like the monks of old. The Buddha laid down the training rule to protect these later monks.

The commentaries go on to explain that in the case of a woman who has had a miscarriage or who is just about to give birth, the request to step on cloth is made for a blessing and is thus permissible. In the first instance, the request was made as a vow and a form of prophesy, while in the second instance the request was made as a form of blessing.

A simple explanation for why the Buddha refrained from stepping on the cloth at the palace is that he was acting out of good manners. When he arrived at the palace he had not yet washed his feet and he did not wish to spoil the cloth (there is a sub-clause in the rule allowing monks to step on the cloth if they have washed their feet). In the case of the woman, the Buddha allowed monks to step on the cloth because she specifically requested that they do so as a blessing.

This allowance by the Buddha is probably the origin why monks in more recent times have acquiesced to the requests by laypeople to perform auspicious ceremonies, produce amulets, and engage with other sacred objects (see Note Auspicious Objects), to the extent that in some periods of time this involvement seems to have exceeded what is appropriate.53 {962} In any case, if monks understand the spirit of the training rule mentioned above, of conducting auspicious ceremonies only when specifically requested to do so by laypeople, then any harm or immoderate behaviour will be avoided.

Auspicious Objects

Auspicious objects (maṅgala) differ from supernatural powers, but from a practical perspective, for example in relation to their advantages and disadvantages and to the correct relationship to these things, they have many similarities. Supernatural powers entail an exceptional ability by the person who possesses them.

Auspiciousness, however, can be derived from different sources: one may believe that the auspicious person or object possesses some kind of sacred or supernatural power; one may believe that the person or object is a medium or channel for some mystical power; or one may believe that the person or object possesses a virtue, happiness, or purity that bestows holiness or blessedness, as many Buddhist laypeople believe is the case with the bhikkhus.

Auspicious objects are closely associated with the ’base arts’ (tiracchāna-vijjā; ’pseudo-knowledge’, which is distinct from supernatural powers), because many people believe that these base arts are the origin of good fortune. If a monk performs these base arts to seek material gain this is considered wrong livelihood and immoral conduct (as defined by the teaching on ’great morality’ – mahā-sīla).

Similar concessions can be made in relation to divine beings. The second stage of development can be incorporated by allowing Buddhists to honour devas, especially in the context of a society in which devas are traditionally worshiped. Even oblations to devas are supported in the suttas, but with the stipulation that these offerings are given out of kindness or with a sense of service, not as supplication or with the wish for a reward.54

When one goes to live in a new place, one should first offer support to those virtuous people in the surrounding area and then establish the mind in generosity, sharing whatever merit one has accrued with the local celestial beings. Having received this tribute, the devas will respond with kindness:

Whatever devas there are who receive this offering [of respect],
They will respect him in turn.
Having received honour from him,
They will likewise honour him.
They care for him as a mother cares for her child.55

Vin. I. 229-30; D. II. 88-9; Ud. 89.

In any case, the kindness reciprocated by the devas is unsolicited; the person who offers respect need not petition for it. Our duty is simply to establish a heart of kindness and to share whatever goodness we have with others. Someone who understands this principle will think of the devas with benevolence. When one performs meritorious deeds, one shares this merit with them. There is no harm in this behaviour; it will merely enhance the quality of the mind and spread goodness and peace throughout the world. Even when one is unable to pass beyond the second stage, if one maintains this principle of kindly coexistence and does not fall back to currying favour with divine beings, one’s behaviour will automatically remain within wholesome boundaries and prevent one from causing harm. In addition, one’s mind will be enhanced.

Proper Relationship to the Supernatural

In sum, the Buddhist way of practice in relation to supernatural powers, divine beings, and auspicious phenomena is not complicated. If one’s behaviour is in line with Dhamma then one can conduct one’s life normally.

In Thai society it is common to hear about divine beings, sacred objects, and miracles. One may wonder whether these things exist or not, and if they exist how one should relate to them. In this context, one should develop self-confidence, stop fretting about these questions, and undertake the practice that is correct in all circumstances – a practice that can be perfected in one’s own mind. {963}

In relation to divine beings, one should act with kindness, goodwill, and respect. One should develop gentleness, wishing that all beings – including devas – who are companions in this world, be happy. In society, one meets both kinds of people: those who believe in and rely on devas, and those who disbelieve and look down with contempt on both devas and those who believe in them. Members of both factions are often in conflict with one another. If one has the opportunity, one should encourage members of both groups to find the middle ground of expressing kindness, both to devas and to each other.

While engaged in personal activities, one should make the utmost effort to act in accord with the law of cause and effect. If one is still concerned about divine assistance, one may consider that if one possesses sufficient goodness, and if virtuous and benevolent devas do indeed exist, then one may leave such assistance up to them: the devas themselves will decide and act on their own initiative. For one’s own part, one performs one’s duties to the best of one’s ability – to the extent that one’s mindfulness and wisdom permits – and one thus grows in wisdom and virtue, so that one reaches the third stage of development, at which stage one reaches complete freedom and is worthy of the devas’ veneration.

Rather than acting virtuously with the express wish that devas will revere us, or taking up an unyielding stance in relation to devas, which is a form of conceit, we should do good for our own sake and for our own reasons. The ensuing respect is up to the devas to show from their own volition, because devas possess the virtuous quality of respecting goodness in others.

As for psychic powers (iddhi) and auspicious powers (maṅgala), we should maintain the same attitude, the only difference being to change the response of kindness to a personal proficiency in such powers. The initial psychic powers that we should develop are perseverance and reasoned discernment, which lead to a fulfilment of our responsibilities. Similarly, the auspicious powers we should develop are those virtues and skills which enhance our lives and lead to peace and happiness.56

Monks, who are normally the spiritual leaders in a Buddhist community, should be very cautious when dealing with supernatural phenomena. Those monks who are proficient in teaching may be able to lead people to higher levels of spiritual development quickly. But some monks, although they teach people to abandon their former beliefs, stop at this point and do not teach them how to give rise to wisdom and to see the path ahead. These people then have neither faith nor wisdom, and drift around aimlessly – a risk both to themselves and to society.

Those monks who are not adept at teaching and who use people’s attachments to supernatural phenomena as a starting point for instruction should be aware of several points.57 As for psychic powers, the Buddha laid down a clear rule forbidding monks from exhibiting such powers to laypeople. And as for sacred objects or ceremonies, to begin with, monks should determine not to use these things as a means for making a living or seeking material gain, which is wrong livelihood and a stain on moral conduct. {964}

There are several important considerations that have a direct bearing on the subject of teaching:

First, the involvement with supernatural phenomena or sacred objects is for the purpose of helping people become free from them. For example, a monk uses psychic powers to free people from a reliance on such powers.

Second, at whatever point a teacher begins to teach, he or she must continually lead the student forward from that point until the goal of freedom is reached. One must not regress to former levels of practice. The fascination with supernatural phenomena should decrease or at least not increase; the teacher should not encourage a preoccupation with these things. The teacher helps the student to reduce his or her fascination with these things and to understand their limitations; in this way the student completely passes beyond the first stage, of dependence on them. Apart from this, one should remember the Buddha’s allowance for monks to participate in auspicious ceremonies only when specifically asked by laypeople, which helps to further delineate the suitable boundaries for involvement with these things.

Third, whenever there is an opportunity, the teacher should offer teachings that lead to complete deliverance from mental impurity and the round of rebirth; these teachings will hasten and help direct the student’s spiritual development.

For those people who are developing from the first stage (of dependence) to the second stage (of self-mastery), a teacher should establish the following limitations as to the amount of concessions or compromises he or she makes:

  1. The practice should not be one of prayer to or dependence on external, supernatural forces (i.e. the teaching should be one of self-reliance and independence).

  2. The practice should not lead to an obsession with supernatural phenomena or to an expectation that outside forces will intervene and therefore there is no need to act (i.e. the teaching should emphasize individual effort in line with the law of cause and effect).

Unstinting Spiritual Development

When these limitations on teaching have been set down, the way of practice regarding supernatural phenomena can be outlined as follows:

  • It is permissible to become involved with supernatural phenomena, including sacred objects and auspicious ceremonies, but one gives them a new meaning: one enables people to develop power within themselves: spiritual power (dhamma-iddhi), ’noble power’ (ariya-iddhi), and the blessings arising from Dhamma practice. For monks, the most basic form of involvement in the auspicious ceremonies of laypeople is to use these ceremonies as a means of encouragement (i.e. to support goodness) and to promote effort. Supernatural phenomena should not interfere in the making of wise and reasonable effort.

  • The relationship to divine beings is one of friendly coexistence. Concessions are made to allow making offerings (bali)58 to devas in the sense of offering respect or assistance (not as a propitiatory offering, a supplication, or a request for favours).59 {965}

The more concessions one makes in this area of supernatural phenomena, the more important it is to be cautious. Lay Buddhists should especially take care in this regard. Monks should continually remind the lay community of the hazards of attaching to these things, because due to the busyness of their lives the laity have less opportunity to be immersed in Dhamma teachings and can easily be led astray.

Every individual engaged in Dhamma practice should be aware that he or she is still in the developmental stages of spiritual practice. At any given time one should remember at what stage one presently is. One should reflect in this way: ’Even if at this current time I am still captivated by the subject of devas and blessings, I hope that one day I can reach the stage of complete freedom.’ In a nutshell, one should reflect: ’I must progress, not stagnate.’

The word ’progress’ has a special importance for the initial stage of Buddhist practice,60 because there is always the risk of falling away from the Buddhist community and reverting back to ’ignoble’ ways. At this initial stage there are many things that are shared between the Buddhist way of practice and the teachings of pre-Buddhist religions, and in some cases, as in the case with auspiciousness (maṅgala) and spiritual offerings (bali), these things are essentially the same. The difference lies only in the guidelines governing interaction with these things and the range of application.

If one is careless and forgets the proper relationship to supernatural phenomena, one may easily revert back to a contrary position and fall away from the true Buddhist community (I fear this is the case for many people). For this reason, it is very important that the concept of ’progress’ is added to one’s reflections on the proper manner of behaviour in relation to the supernatural.61

Whenever people reach stage three (of freedom) then they are truly safe, because they enter the ’noble’ community: they have reached the level of stream-entry or a higher level of realization. At this stage people do not hesitate or revert back to a former stage; because they have reached the heart of the Triple Gem and have confidence in the law of causality, they only move forward, to the point of unshakeable faith. They do not rely on external conditions, for example sacred objects or divine powers, for security, and they have no serious defilements that would cause them to do evil or give rise to major problems. They have experienced a refined happiness that springs from inner peace and establishes them in faultless conduct. These excellent qualities of virtue, joy, and freedom, which are impervious to external influences, induce the devas to honour and pay respect to these individuals and engender a life of blessings: supreme blessings abide within these noble beings.

Of all living beings, humans have the greatest aptitude for being trained. They are able to train their bodies and their minds, and are able to accomplish the most refined, elaborate and astonishing things.62 To waste time expecting assistance from supernatural or divine powers is heedless and neglectful behaviour, allowing one’s human potential to slip away in vain. As a consequence one will not develop on the noble path. On the other hand, people who are diligent and careful, who hasten to train themselves without delay, will acquire both psychic and divine powers and will reach the supreme state, an achievement that neither supernatural powers nor divine beings can provide. {966}

Appendix 1: Supernatural Phenomena Recorded in the Scriptures

Following is a list of occasions recorded in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha displayed psychic powers:

  • subduing Uruvela-Kassapa, the leader of the matted-hair ascetics;63

  • subduing Baka Brahma;64

  • subduing another Brahma;65

  • correcting the wrong views of Sunakkhatta and refuting the claims of the naked ascetic Pāṭikaputta;66

  • subduing the bandit Aṅgulimāla;67

  • inspiring awe in a group of monks so that they would come to receive teachings;68

  • permitting only certain people to see the ’marks of a Great Man’;69

  • extending lovingkindness and taming the fierce elephant Nālāgiri;70

  • and confronting the yakkha71 Āḷavaka.72

Occasions recorded in the commentaries include the ’twin miracles’ and refuting the claims of heretical teachers,73 and taking five hundred monks to admire the Himalayas in order to dispel their thoughts of former lovers.74

Here is a list of occasions recorded in the Pali Canon in which disciples of the Buddha displayed psychic powers:

  • Ven. Piṇḍola-Bhāradvāja taking up the challenge to rise in the air and bring down a sandalwood bowl from a high pole;75

  • Ven. Mahā Moggallāna subduing Māra;76

  • Ven. Pilinda-Vaccha rescuing two kidnapped daughters belonging to his lay-supporters;77

  • Ven. Pilinda-Vaccha turning King Bimbisāra’s palace into gold to vindicate a falsely accused family;78

  • Ven. Dabba-Mallaputta using his finger as a lamp to shine the way when taking monks to their dwellings at night;79

  • Ven. Sāgata displaying powers to the laity;80

  • Ven. Sāgata subduing the nāga (divine serpent) in the hermitage of the matted-hair ascetics;81

  • Ven. Devadatta inspiring Prince Ajātasattu;82

  • Ven. Sāriputta and Ven. Mahā Moggallāna redeeming Ven. Devadatta’s disciples, by using psychic powers and mind-reading combined with the miracle of instruction;83

  • Ven. Mahaka causing a cool wind to blow along with gentle rain to assist senior monks who were overcome by heat;84 {967}

  • Ven. Mahā Moggallāna causing the Vejayanta Palace to shake in order to stir up a sense of urgency in Indra king of the gods;85

  • Ven. Mahā Moggallāna causing the mansion of Migāra’s mother to shake in order to caution arrogant monks;86 and

  • Ven. Abhibhū, chief disciple of the Buddha Sikhī, teaching the Dhamma while remaining invisible and making his voice heard through the thousandfold world system.87

Occasions recorded in the commentaries are numerous, including:

  • Ven. Cullapanthaka creating one thousand mind-produced images of himself;88

  • Ven. Mahā Moggallāna subduing the nāga king Nandopananda;89

  • Ven. Puṇṇa saving his brother the naval merchant from destruction by angry spirits;90

  • the novice Saṅkicca saving thirty monks by volunteering to be sacrificed by bandits;91

  • the novice Sumana subduing a nāga;92 and

  • Ven. Sundarasamudda fleeing through the air to escape a courtesan.93

There are canonical stories of other individuals performing psychic feats, for example:

  • Brahmas with right view subduing Brahmas with wrong view;94

  • the rishi Rohitassa crossing the entire ocean in one stride;95

  • and Indra taking upon the likeness of a weaver in order to offer almsfood to Ven. Mahā Kassapa.96

There are many such stories in the commentaries, mostly involving devas, yakkhas, vidyādhara (a form of celestial being), and ascetics. Indra plays an important role in these stories (especially in the Jātaka tales), occasionally disguising himself and often assisting or testing virtuous people.97

Some of the canonical references to psychic powers are general, for example:

  • psychic powers are one cause for earthquakes;98

  • the use of psychic powers is one way to demonstrate the significance of mental volitional actions;99

  • a person with psychic powers can see a log of wood as being earth or water;100 and

  • a person who is governed by public opinion hastens to practise the Dhamma, fearing that ascetics, brahmins, and devas with psychic powers may read his mind.101

Appendix 2: Assistance and Provocation by Indra

Indra’s assistance does not stem entirely from his own sense of goodness, but appears also to be his duty, because in many instances his throne heats up as a warning and thus forces him to act. This matter of Indra’s throne heating up demonstrates a transition from earlier, pre-Buddhist ideas of people pressuring the gods through the undertaking of religious austerities, to the Buddhist principle of effectuating change through the power of virtue. In this period of transition, Indra is still influenced by coercion through ascetic practices. {968}

In the scriptural stories describing the way of coercion, Indra’s conduct is that of competition and a vying for power, for example his attempts to disturb the ascetic practices of people, which obviously does not accord with the Buddhist way of practice.102 There are, however, many stories in which Indra’s conduct accords (to various degrees) with a Buddhist way of practice.103 Furthermore, as depicted in these Jātaka tales, Indra does not offer assistance easily. Most often he begins by testing people to see whether they are truly virtuous and upright.

The Mahājanaka Jātaka in particular describes the Buddhist way of practice. This story recounts how, when a ship broke apart in the middle of the ocean, almost all the passengers cried out in fear and petitioned the gods for help.104 The Bodhisatta alone did not cry out or beg for help from the devas. Instead, he used sound judgement and made maximum effort to escape the danger. In the end, Maṇimekhalā the guardian deva of the ocean offered assistance by her own initiative in keeping with the devas’ responsibility.

Besides checking up on people himself, Indra also has an entourage of guardian spirits who help to inspect and report back on people’s behaviour.105

Appendix 3: Asseverations of Truth: a Viable Solution for People Dependent on Supernatural Powers

A practical solution for those at beginning stages of spiritual development – those who are still fascinated by or dependent on supernatural powers – is to apply the traditional Buddhist method of an ’asseveration of truth’ (sacca-kiriyā). This involves invoking the truth or referring to the truth as a governing power: to direct attention to the goodness one has previously performed and accumulated, or to simply reflect on the truth of one’s present state of being, and then to apply the truth as a power for dispelling danger, when all other avenues for addressing the danger are exhausted.

This method of practice is considered to be close to a truly Buddhist way of practice; it does not undermine the making of effort and it is not an entreaty to an external creative power. On the contrary, this practice increases confidence in one’s own virtue and effort and it leads to greater strength of heart. Moreover, one does not need to get mixed up with sacred objects or sacred ceremonies, which lead to complication and complexity. {969}

The Buddhist commentaries, especially the Jātaka tales, contain many stories involving an asseveration of truth (many of these stories verge on the fantastic, but this is normal for literary texts), for example:

  • verifying the true parents of a child (JA. I. 135.);

  • turning reeds hollow so that a tribe of monkeys can drink safely (JA. I. 172; MA. III. 178.);

  • a baby bird wishing to escape a forest fire (JA. I. 213.);

  • helping to win at dice (JA. I. 293., Aṇḍabhūta Jātaka);

  • healing a child who was bitten by a snake (JA. IV. 30.);

  • saving a boat from angry seas (JA. IV. 142.);

  • releasing birds from captivity (JA. IV. 341.);

  • after sacrificing an eye, having the eye grow back (JA. IV. 410; referred to at Miln. Chapter 8, Sīvirañño Cakkhudāna-pañhā.);

  • saving a prince who will be sacrificed in place of his father (JA. V. 25, in this story there is some reliance on devas.);

  • a wife citing her faithfulness and thus healing her husband from leprosy (JA. V. 94.);

  • a queen asking for a son (JA. VI. 1.);

  • escaping from imprisonment after being falsely accused (JA. VI. 30.);

  • curing a son after he was struck by a poisoned arrow (JA. VI. 91.);

  • saving a royal husband who is about to be sacrificed (JA. VI. 219., Candakumara Jātaka);

  • a courtesan making the River Ganges flow backwards (Miln. Chapter 8, Sīvirañño Cakkhudāna-pañhā);

  • King Asoka asking for a branch from the Great Bodhi Tree without needing to cut it (VinA. I. 93.);

  • escaping from the punishment of being crushed by an elephant after being falsely accused of theft (DA. III. 712; at JA. I. 201, however, it is claimed that this escape resulted from the power of lovingkindness);

  • a child remembering his mother’s devotion and honesty in order to escape from a stampeding buffalo (MA. I. 200; SA. II. 147; DhsA. 100.);

  • Ven. Aṅgulimāla wishing for the wellbeing of a woman who is about to give birth (MA. III. 336; referring to M. II. 103.);

  • King Mahākappina crossing a river on horseback (SA. II. 245; AA. I. 321.);

  • a queen crossing a river on horseback (DhA. II. 124.);

  • using flowers as an augury and sending forth an invitation to the Buddha (AA. I. 265.);

  • curing a child who was bitten by a poisonous snake (AA. II. 249.);

  • curing a husband from illness (AA. III. 349; in the Pali Canon, however, it is claimed that the recovery resulted from listening to a Dhamma talk offered by the wife at A. III. 297.);

  • and divining whether beings who are truly ’worthy of offerings’ exist or not. (AA. IV. 181. [Trans.: a person worthy of offerings’ = dakkhiṇeyya-puggala; this term refers to awakened beings.])

The practice of making asseverations of truth is a measuring stick for the stability of ethical conduct in society. A decrease in this tradition of asseverations of truth may point to a decline in social ethics, because when people lack virtue giving rise to self-confidence, they are likely to revert back to a dependence on and supplication to supernatural phenomena like divine powers. It is probably because of such a weakness in ethical conduct that we see the persistence and prevalence of primitive forms of religious practice today, for example the making of propitiatory offerings, supplication, curses and spells.

Appendix 4: Was the Buddha Human or Divine?

When followed and correctly understood, the Buddhist guidelines concerning divine beings enables Buddhists to live harmoniously with those people who still worship divinities, while at the same time they enable Buddhists to safeguard their own principles. Some people raise the objection that such an open-minded stance puts Buddhism at a disadvantage, because people generally lack self-confidence and are disinclined to use their critical faculties, and for this reason they are easily converted to a religious teaching of supplication to divine powers. {970} This may indeed be a weak point requiring consideration, but problems are more likely to stem from whether people have followed the Buddha’s guidelines and continue to improve their understanding of them or not. Because people are easily led astray, it is even more important that Buddhists are careful to protect and maintain their principles.

It is acceptable for Buddhist laypeople to join in the veneration (but not entreaty) of divine beings, but they should not bestow on these divine beings a power that is greater than the human potential inherent in every person. However elevated a divine being may be, it is the ideal human being – the Teacher106 of devas and human beings – who is supreme. If one feels uneasy with the thought that the divinity that one has previously worshipped would venerate a human being, one can look at the Buddha from a different perspective: as someone who has developed himself to the highest degree and transcended the state of being either a god or a human, as borne out by the following story from the Pali Canon (this passage contains a play on words; I have retained the idiomatic expressions for the reader to consider):

At one time, while the Buddha was on a journey travelling alone, a brahmin who was travelling on the same road was amazed when he saw the symbol of a wheel set within the Buddha’s footprints. The brahmin followed the footprints and saw the Buddha sitting peacefully at the foot of a tree by the side of the road; he went up to him, and asked:

’Shall your reverence be a deva?’ The Buddha replied:

’No brahmin, I shall not be a deva.’

’Then your reverence shall be a gandhabba?’107

’No, I shall not be a gandhabba.’

’Then shall your reverence be a yakkha?’

’No, brahmin, I shall not be a yakkha.’

’Then shall your reverence be a human being?’

’No, brahmin, I shall not be a human being.’

’Now when I asked whether your reverence shall be a deva or a gandhabba or a yakkha or a human being, you replied, “I shall not.” What, then, shall your reverence be?’

’Brahmin, those taints whereby, if they were not abandoned, I may become a deva, a gandhabba, a yakkha, or a human being – these taints are abandoned by me, cut off at the root … destroyed so that they are no more subject to arise in the future. Just as, brahmin, a blue, red, or white lotus, though born and grown in the water, rises up and stands unsoiled by the water, so, brahmin, though born and grown in the world, I have transcended the world and dwell unsoiled by the world. Consider me, O brahmin, a Buddha.’108

A. II. 37-8.

Appendix 5: Divine Higher Knowledge and Vision

The Aṅguttara Nikāya states that the Buddha could declare having realized the unsurpassed, supreme enlightenment when he had perfected the eightfold series of higher knowledge and vision of the devas (adhideva-ñāṇadassana):

  1. to perceive the devas’ auras;

  2. to see the devas’ forms;

  3. to converse with the devas;

  4. to know to which group the devas belong;

  5. to know that the devas pass away from here and are reborn there according to the fruits of kamma;

  6. to know the devas’ nourish-ment and to know their experiences;

  7. to know the devas’ lifespan; and

  8. to know whether he had formerly dwelt among these devas.109

Adhideva-ñāṇadassana may also be translated as ’knowledge and vision of one who surpasses the devas’ or ’knowledge and vision leading one to surpass the devas’, because it leads a person to know the devas better than the devas know themselves (e.g. Brahma does not know his own age and mistakenly believes he is immortal).110 Adhideva-ñāṇadassana is a facet of the divine eye and is a necessary characteristic of the perfectly enlightened Buddha, along with the other ’powers and knowledge of the Tathāgata’ (tathāgata-balañāṇa), but it is not necessary for the attainment of arahantship.111 From the ancient times, even before the time of the Buddha, people have had a deep-seated respect for divine beings. To show the distinction of human beings, it was therefore necessary to show how humans can surpass the devas.

Appendix 6: Offerings to Devas

Offerings to devas (devatā-bali) are one of five kinds of righteous offerings that the Buddha recommended for laypeople.112 The other four are: aid for relatives (ñāti-bali), welcome gifts for guests (atithi-bali), the making of merit in honour of the departed (pubbapeta-bali), and support of the Crown, e.g. the payment of taxes (rāja-bali). Bali is one of only few words originally used in Brahmanism that the Buddha adopted (i.e. that were accepted into the Buddhist teachings) without having its meaning changed (in this case the meaning changed only slightly). There are other words like yañña and tapa which were used but their meanings were changed considerably. This is because bali originally has had the meaning of offering sacrifice as a form of assistance or support (as well as respect). In Brahmanism, these offerings (bali) were made to devas, spirits, human beings, and even to birds and other animals. The offerings consisted of rice, buttermilk, flowers, scented oil, incense, sandalwood, betel, spices, etc. There is a passage in the Ratana Sutta urging the devas to cultivate lovingkindness towards and protect those people who make offerings.113 The commentaries explain that the sharing of merit (patti-dāna) – to have other beings take part in the act of goodness – is one (Buddhist) definition for bali, and the fact that the Canon advocates this form of offering demonstrates how people assist the devas. The devas who receive these offerings should have gratitude and protect people in return.114


See Appendix 1: Supernatural Phenomena Recorded in the Scriptures.


Na sodhenti maccaṁ avitiṇṇakaṅkhaṁ; Sn. 45.


This principle is included in the booklet titled ’Criteria for Analyzing the Meaning and Value of Buddha-Dhamma’, which I hope to include as a separate chapter in future editions of Buddhadhamma.


Compare with the Buddha’s teachings at M. I. 428-32 on those things to be explained and those things to be left unexplained.


Also translated as ’supernormal power’ or ’supreme knowledge’. In Pali, psychic powers (iddhi) may be referred to as a ’wonder of psychic power’ (iddhi-pāṭihāriya), ’form of psychic power’ (iddhi-vidhi), or ’manner of psychic power’ (iddhi-vidhā).


Trans.: there are five forms of mundane supreme knowledge: (1) magical powers, including the ability to become invisible, to project mind-made images of oneself, to pass through solid things, to walk on water, to fly through the air, etc.; (2) divine ear; (3) telepathy; (4) recollection of past lives; and (5) clairvoyance.


Detailed explanations of the forms of higher knowledge (abhiññā), along with scriptural references, are presented in chapter 7 on awakened beings.


D. I. 212-15; D. III. 220; A. I. 170; Ps. II. 227-8.


Kevaddha Sutta: D. I. 213.


Ps. II. 227-8.


Trans.: he had the following doubt: Where are the four great elements – earth, water, fire and air – extinguished without remainder? For more on this story, see chapter 6 on Nibbāna.


See the Kevaddha Sutta: D. I. 211-23.


See: A. I. 170-72.


D. III. 112-13; explained at Ps. II. 212.


For the objective of this form of practice, see: A. III. 169. This kind of psychic power is a form of ’deliverance of mind by way of lovingkindness’ (mettā-cetovimutti), by which the person has reached the level of ’radiant liberation’ (subha-vimokkha). It can arise by developing the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjhaṅga) accompanied by lovingkindness (S. V. 119), by developing the four factors of mindfulness (S. V. 294-6), or by developing concentration (S. V. 317-8). A person who practises in this way is sometimes called a ’noble one with developed faculties’ (M. III. 302).


Vin. II. 112. The commentaries (see: VinA. VI. 1203) claim that the Buddha only forbade vikubbanā-iddhi (’powers of transformation’, e.g. transfiguring oneself into different forms, creating mind-created objects for others to see, speaking while remaining invisible, or revealing only half of one’s body); he did not forbid adhiṭṭhāna-iddhi (’governing powers’, e.g. revealing oneself as many, walking on water, or diving into the earth); this interpretation, however, seems to not be favoured.


A. I. 292; A. V. 326-7.


Iddhi-mada. This intoxication falls under the same category as being intoxicated by knowledge, moral conduct, jhāna, etc.; see: Vbh. 345-6.


Vism. 89-90, 97.


In a similar context, the Buddha was highly critical of people who use their moral precepts and religious practices to influence people while seeking fame, praise, or material gain.


Trans.: the Buddha.


Note that the principle of self-reliance needs to be balanced by the principle of respect or veneration for the Dhamma. Note also that a truly liberated person heeds the teachings and is highly disciplined. Heeding the teachings and the principle of faith are not identical. Heeding the teachings or a disciplined compliance to the teachings can stem from faith or from wisdom; arahants practise in accord with the teachings and keep the standards of discipline out of wisdom.


For references to the display of psychic powers in the scriptures, see Appendix 1.


Āmisa-iddhi (material success or prosperity; materiality as a creative force) and dhamma-iddhi (success or prosperity by way of the Dhamma; spiritual prosperity; the Dhamma as a creative force; power of righteousness); see: A. I. 93-4. Having a beautiful physical appearance, long life, good health, and being attractive are also called forms of ’achievement’ (iddhi); see: D. II. 177; M. III. 176.


D. I. 215-6; S. I. 61-2; A. II. 47-8.


Vin. II. 184-5; if people have extremely bad thoughts, their psychic powers may degenerate, because these powers rely on jhāna to act as a foundation, and to enter jhāna a person’s mind must be pure, bright, and free from the hindrances (nīvaraṇa).


A. IV. 396-7.


It. 76-8.




A. IV. 225-6.


Cf.: AA. IV. 187.


The four ’states of perdition’ (apāya-bhūmi): hell (niraya), the animal realm (tiracchānayoni), the ghost realm (pittivisaya), and the realm of demons (asurakāya).


On the subject of higher knowledge and vision of the devas (adhidevañāṇadassana) see Appendix 5.


S. I. 146-7.


M. I. 253-4.


S. I. 219.


For devas, the world of human beings is dirty and smells repulsive; see: D. II. 325-6; KhA. 117; SnA. I. 180.


DhA. III. 10; JA. I. 227.


See the story of Ven. Koṇḍadhāna at AA. I. 260; DhA. III. 52.


E.g.: KhA. 232; SnA. I. 193; DhA. I. 313.


E.g.: the story of Pabbhāravāsī-Tissa Thera: DhA. IV. 170.


Here, the discussion of Māra conforms to the scriptural stories of Māra as a being, not to the figurative or metaphorical meanings of this word.


Māra’s domain or empire = māra-dheyya; see: MA. I. 34; SnA. I. 44.


See: JA. I. 71; [BvA. 521].


See: M. I. 330-31.


A. II. 17.


See: It. 75; Thag. verse 628; Thig. verse 365.


Trans: Pali: Inda.


On the assistance and provocation by Indra, see Appendix 2.


The original saying is translated as: ’The effort to do good is the virtue of human beings; the assistance of good people is the virtue of heaven’, but using the term ’responsibility’ emphasizes practical application.


The phrase ’undertaking religious practices in order to become a god’ is based on the interpretation at SnA. I. 291; the Pali term used here is amarā, meaning: ’immortality’, i.e. the state of a divinity.


The term ’sacred object’ (Thai: sing sak-sit – สิ่งศักดิ์สิทธิ์) is ambiguous, with an overly wide breadth of meaning. Of the things that fall under this category, those that are permissible by the Buddha are probably the things called maṅgala (’auspicious’ or ’blessed’ objects or ceremonies). The use of this term maṅgala provides a well-defined boundary and corresponds to the practice of Dhamma.


Some scholars claim that this acquiescence or permissive attitude is both a characteristic and a weak point of Buddhism. It is true that acquiescence without setting down firm principles and boundaries is detrimental, but Buddhism does take a strong position and lay down clear boundaries on issues such as supernatural phenomena. The problem lies with whether we understand the Buddhist standpoint correctly. Granted, even with well-defined principles, the act of acquiescence has some harmful consequences. In any case, the benefits from the Buddhist standpoint on this subject of the supernatural have been explained earlier in this chapter.


E.g.: A. II. 68; A. III. 45-6.


There are two important points concerning the making of offerings (bali) to devas as referred to in these scriptural passages: (1) the Buddha gave these teachings to brahmins, whose custom it was to make sacrificial offerings to divine beings; and (2) it was the belief at that time that whenever people built an important house or building, devas would on their own accord come and dwell in these buildings. People did not build a special place (e.g. a spirit house) for these devas and they did not perform a ritual of inviting the devas.


See the Maṅgala Sutta: Kh. 2; Sn. 46.


One problem in the present day is that monks who are skilled at teaching do not show much consideration for those monks who still rely on special enticements when teaching the laypeople. And these latter monks tend to be unreceptive to teachings that lead to freedom from defilement, being caught up in the domain of supernatural phenomena (not to mention those monks who are caught up in seeking material gain). As a result there is no point of contact between these different groups of monks, causing confusion, disharmony and even contention in the lay community.


Bali includes the sharing of merit with devas.


For more on offerings to devas (devatā-bali) see Appendix 6.


Trans.: for ’Buddhist practice’ here the author uses the term ariya-dhamma: ’the Dhamma of the noble ones’.


On an asseveration of truth (sacca-kiriyā) as a positive solution for those who still wish for assistance from external forces, see Appendix 3.


There are many scriptural terms referring to training and discipline, e.g. dama, bhāvanā, vinaya, vinīta, and sikkhā, but unfortunately in more recent times the meanings of some of these words (in the Thai language) have deviated from their original connotations.


Vin. I. 24-33. Damana (’subduing’, ’taming’) is derived from the verb dameti, meaning to ’train’: to dispel pride and to lead a person to a correct way of practice; in this context it does not mean to punish or chastise.


M. I. 326-30; S. I. 142.


S. I. 144.


D. III. 6-26.


M. II. 99.


S. III. 92-3.


D. I. 105-106, 109; M. II. 135, 147; Sn. 108.


Vin. II. 195. This is an indirect display of psychic powers.


Trans.: yakkha: a class of non-human beings. The term can be translated as ’spirit’, ’demon’, ’deity’, ’ogre’, etc.


S. I. 213-14; Sn. 31-32. This is an indirect display of psychic powers.


DA. I. 57; DhA. III. 199; JA. IV. 263. These events refer to passages at: Ps. I. 2-3, 125; Vin. II. 111.


JA. V. 415.


Vin. II. 111. This is the occasion prompting the Buddha to lay down the precept forbidding monks from displaying psychic powers to laypeople.


M. I. 333.


Vin. III. 67.


Vin. III. 249-50.


Vin. II. 75-6; Vin. III. 158-9.


Vin. I. 180. His powers were so impressive that he had to perform them in front of the Buddha while declaring the Buddha as his teacher, so that the laity were prepared to listen to the Buddha’s instructions.


Vin. IV. 109. This story is connected to the precept forbidding monks from drinking alcohol.


Vin. II. 184-5.


Vin. II. 200.


S. IV. 289-90. Upon request, Ven. Mahaka then created a fire for the layman Citta to see.


M. I. 253-4.


S. V. 270.


S. I. 155-6; A. I. 226-7; Ps. II. 210.


AA. I. 209, 216; DhA. I. 239; Vism. 387 (referring to Ps. II. 207).


JA. V. 126; Vism. 398-401.


MA. V. 84-92; an addendum to M. III. 270. There is a story of the Buddha travelling to the Sunāparanta country, the birthplace of Ven. Puṇṇa, where he left two footprints. [The Burmese identify this country with an area near Pagan.]


DhA. II. 240. The bandits were converted to Buddhism and were ordained as monks.


DhA. IV. 120.


DhA. IV. 194.


S. I. 146.


S. I. 61-62; A. II. 47. At such speed, he travelled for one hundred years and died before reaching the world’s end.


Ud. 29-30.


DhA. III. 178; JA. IV. 186; ItA. I. 85. On one occasion Indra transformed himself into a mouse and bit through the rope that Ciñcā-māṇavikā was using to simulate pregnancy.


D. II. 108.


M. I. 377-8.


A. III. 340-41.


A. I. 148-9.


E.g.: Lomasakassapa Jātaka: JA. III. 514; Alambusā Jātaka: JA. V. 152; Naḷinikā Jātaka: JA. V. 193.


E.g.: Mahāsuvarāja Jātaka: JA. III. 490; Kaṇha Jātaka: JA. IV. 7; Akitti Jātaka: JA. IV. 236; Suruci Jātaka: JA. IV. 318; Sīvirāja Jātaka: JA. IV. 401; Sambulā Jātaka: JA. V. 88; Kusa Jātaka: JA. V. 278; Temiya Jātaka: JA. VI. 1; Vessantara Jātaka: JA. VI. 568; the story of Ven. Cakkhupāla: DhA. I. 17; the story of a novice: DhA. IV. 176.


JA. VI. 34. This story depicts one of the final ten lifetimes of the Bodhisatta.


A. I. 142-3; AA. II. 232.


Trans.: the Buddha.


Trans.: gandhabba: a class of demi-gods belonging to the heaven of the Four Great Kings, described as celestial musicians.


Trans.: on the play on words, Bhikkhu Bodhi has this to say: ’The brahmin’s question uses the future tense bhavissati, but it is difficult to tell whether he actually intended the question to refer to the Buddha’s future or used the future form simply as a polite mannerism. Possibly there is a word play going on, the brahmin using the future in the polite sense, the Buddha deliberately speaking as if the future was literally intended.’ Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, © Buddhist Publication Society, p. 291.


A. IV. 304-305.


Cf.: Nd. II. 55; Nd2A. 94; SnA. II. 607.


See: MA. III. 328.


A. II. 68; A. III. 45-6.


Kh. 3-4; Sn. 39.


KhA. 169; SnA. I. 278.